Shining a light into the darkness of suicide: Suicide prevention in the Rogue Valley

by Aaron Lundstrom

world_suicide_prevention_day_by_raynehale-d5ed6rmI had never associated Ashland with suicide. Sure, I read about Ashland’s homicides and rapes and the typical sordid sundries that many other communities produce. But suicide? Not once before moving and exploring here in early 2013 did I put Ashland and suicide together. I don’t know why exactly. Maybe it’s partly because Ashland’s a town that hosts Blissology University seminars, is home to those “Ashland is the Center of the Universe” bumper stickers, and harbors an exceptional number of smiling pedestrians. My disillusionment began, though, sometime around mid-2013 — because of Twitter.

It was an early afternoon and I should have been writing. Instead, I was checking Twitter, which regularly fed me tweets from the “Jackson County 911” account, a non-official agency that provides real-time updates of fire and medical calls made throughout Jackson County. That day and too often on succeeding days, I’d see tweets that read something like this: Suicide, 1234 Something St., Time of Day, Town. The majority of these suicides were from places outside Ashland, including Medford, Talent, and others. But occasionally “Ashland” appeared in the suicide-announcing feed.

The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office says that of the 51 suicides reported in Jackson County in 2013, four of them were in Ashland. All men. One used a handgun, two others a rifle, and the other overdosed intentionally on insulin — all in spite of bliss, of universe, and of ambient smiles.

Reading a news feed about one suicide, and then another, and then another, and then another, and then realizing that among these people who chose to end their lives were some who lived my own community, felt about as helpless as trying to maneuver a vehicle down a steep, ice-slicked hill. And this feeling of helplessness is just a smattering when compared with the surrender felt by the suicidal.

Feelings of helplessness aside, though, health agencies such as the World Health Organization and the local Jackson County Suicide Prevention Coalition insist that suicide is largely preventable. And once a person does become suicidal, this prevention depends on action not primarily from the mentally ill, but from community partners, from the well, from the aware — from you and me.

Dr. Gary McConahay, who works with the JCSPC and as a clinical director for ColumbiaCare Services, a mental health service provider in Medford, says that there are four steps a person can take when intervening in the life of a suicidal person:

  1.    Tell the person specifically what has made you concerned.
  2.    Explain how the action or actions are associated with suicidal thinking.
  3.    Ask directly, “Are you thinking about committing suicide?”
  4.    Call 541-774-8201 or 1-800-TALK, numbers for local and national suicide hotlines.

An abbreviated form of this process is the Q-P-R method, which stands for Question, Persuade, and Refer. This requires asking if the person is thinking about suicide, persuading the individual to seek help, and referring the person to the right resources, such as a suicide hotline or a trusted counselor in the community.

But such preparedness to intervene is effective only when coupled with community connectedness. Not only does suicide prevention mandate that more people know what to do when confronted with a suicidal person, it also requires that more people develop an outgoing attitude toward other community members, partly by having a greater and wider grasp on who their neighbors are and how they’re doing.

One way to accomplish this is simply by taking an interest in those nearest to us in our workaday routines — our immediate neighbors, our coworkers, our classmates, and so on. Additionally, there are more organized ways to reach out that have proven and could prove effective, whether that’s through a secular or faith-based organization. For example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses note on their official website, JW.org, at least two occasions in which Witness ministers, while in the course of their door-to-door and public evangelizing, interrupted people in the process of committing suicide, thereafter providing comfort and convincing these individuals to give life another chance. Whether you want to call that divine intervention or simply being in the right place at the right time, the pattern is clear: the more we reach out to others, the greater the likelihood we’ll be a helping hand to someone, even to someone in a suicidal state.

One local program poised to provide greater community connectivity is Ashland’s Map Your Neighborhood program, a provision managed by the City of Ashland’s Community Emergency Response Team. The MYN program is designed to gather neighbors in order to plan for appropriate action after an emergency or natural disaster. When I conversed with Terri Eubanks, the program coordinator for CERT, she wouldn’t go as far as saying that MYN could help prevent suicide. She did, however, concede that some of Ashland’s MYN setups have indeed helped neighbors develop stronger relationships. As the MYN website notes, “Knowing our neighbors has a multiplying effect… Our daily sense of security is deepened when we know our neighbors and look out for one another.”

Furthermore, “Neighborhoods that are prepared for emergencies and disasters save lives.”

And when that disaster or emergency is someone planning to commit suicide, a nearby neighbor, a cognizant, readied and connected community, could just as well be the difference between a saved life and the end of one.

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[SIDEBAR 1]

SUICIDE WARNING SIGNS INCLUDE:

Talking about feeling hopeless.

Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain.

Talking about being a burden to others.

Social withdrawal or isolation.

Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs.

Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.

Displaying extreme mood swings.

Behaving recklessly.

Giving away prized possessions.

–Source: Jackson Care Connect

 

[SIDEBAR 2]

LOCAL AND NATIONAL RESOURCES:

Jackson County Suicide Prevention Coalition: http://suicidepreventionjacksoncounty.com/

Ashland CERT’s Map Your Neighborhood: http://www.ashland.or.us/myn/

ColumbiaCare Services: http://columbiacare.org/

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: http://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/